By Nate Bloom
“Oppenheimer,” which opens in theaters on July 21, is a $100M budget, big-cast film about physicist J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER (1904-67). He was the head of The Manhattan Project, the code-name given to the successful American program to develop an atomic weapon during WWII. Oppenheimer was not the most brilliant theoretical physicist, but he was “very good.” He had the scientific knowledge and administrative skills to make the bomb a reality.
The film was directed and written by Christopher Nolan, who is best known for making some of the best “Batman” films. The film’s screenplay was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning historical study, “American Promethus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” (2005). It was written by the late MARTIN J. SHERWIN and Kai Bird (Years ago, Bird told me he isn’t Jewish, but his daughter was raised in his wife’s Jewish faith.)
Here is the “arc” of Oppenheimer’s life in super short form: He was born and raised in Manhattan. His father was a German Jew who came to the States and did very well in the textile business. His parents were non-observant. Robert, a “weird smarty,” was bullied in school, but excelled in his studies. Eventually, he realized his forte was theoretical physics. He was teaching at the Univ. of California, Berkeley, when WWII broke out.
In 1939, ALBERT EINSTEIN (played by Tom Conti in the film) sent a letter to President Roosevelt, telling him that the Nazis might be working on an atomic weapon. This letter got the Manhattan Project rolling. Army general Leslie Groves was tasked with finding an American-born physicist to lead the Project. Groves’ surprise pick was Oppenheimer. Groves (Matt Damon) saw talents that many others did not, like Oppenheimer’s ability to explain difficult subjects and get the best out of others.
After the bomb was dropped (1945), and the war ended, newspapers were full of accounts of the making of the bomb. Oppenheimer’s role was made public and he was lionized in much of the media. In 1947, he became the head of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Einstein was an Institute professor from the time he fled Germany to America (1933) until he died in 1955.
The third “act” in Oppenheimer’s life reached its pinnacle when he was informed, in 1953, that the government would move to have his security clearance taken away. More on that below.
I reviewed the background of the first 20 “real” persons in the film’s credits and the background of the actors who played them.
12 of the “20” were physicists. With the exception of Einstein, all worked on the Manhattan Project. It’s striking that 9 out of the 12 “top” physicists were Jewish and three were refugees. An asterisk notes they were Nobel Prize winners. Here are the 12: Einstein*; Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy); NIELS BOHR*, Danish refugee. His mother was Jewish (Kenneth Branagh); EDWARD TELLER, Hungarian Jew — not a refugee (BENNY SAFDIE); FRANK OPPENHEIMER, Robert’s brother (DYLAN ARNOLD. His mother is Jewish); HANS BETHE*, German Jewish refugee (Gustaf Skarsgaard); ISIDOR ISSAC RABI* (DAVID KRUMHOLTZ); ROBERT SERBER (Michael Angarano); RICHARD FEYNMAN* (Jack Quaid); Kenneth Bainbridge (JOSH PECK), Ernest Lawrence* (Josh Hartnett); and David L. Hall (Rami Malek).
Three women are in the “20.” Emily Blunt plays “Kitty” Oppenheimer, Robert’s non-Jewish wife; Florence Pugh plays Jean Tatlock, Robert’s non-Jewish former fiancée; and OLIVIA THIRLBY (her mother is Jewish) plays LILI HORNIG, a top chemist. Her parents were Czech Jews who settled in Berlin in 1929. They moved to America after Hitler’s 1933 takeover.
The remainder are persons in security or administrative positions, like Groves. Only one was Jewish. The one is LEWIS STRAUSS (played by ROBERT DOWNEY, JR., who is “3/8 Jewish” and calls himself Jewish). Strauss studied physics in high school, and later on his own. However, his family couldn’t afford to send him to college. An eye injury prevented him from serving in WWI, so he volunteered to help Herbert Hoover’s humanitarian work. Through Hoover, he got a post-war position in a banking company and he became rich. Strauss joined the Army Reserve in 1926 and was “made active” in 1942. He did great in administrative positions and ended his service as an admiral. He became religious and helped Jewish refugees.
In 1953, Straiss was made head of the Atomic Energy Commission. He pushed for lifting Oppenheimer’s security clearance based on several things — mainly Communists or ex-Communists in Oppenheimer’s circle, and Oppenheimer’s opposition to the creation of the hydrogen bomb. Also, he was annoyed by Robert’s almost indifference to his Jewish background.
The 1954 hearing was almost a farce. The government often used misleading or false evidence. Much of the government evidence came from illegal wire taps on Oppenheimer and his attorneys(!).
His clearance was pulled and Oppenheimer, friends said, was never the same person. Ironically, Oppenheimer didn’t need a security clearance anymore. Einstein told him just that. Oppenheimer replied that he would fight to keep his clearance. This moved Einstein to call Oppenheimer a “nar” (“fool” in Yiddish).
Last December, the Dept. of Energy restored Oppenheimer’s clearance, citing the “flawed process” of the ’54 hearing and additional evidence of the physicist’s loyalty.